Condom story compounds into First Amendment fight

UTAH — Students and administrators at Southern Utah University are squaring off over who has the legal right to control content of the student newspaper.

Last month two University Journal articles that criticized the limited availability of condoms on campus drew fire from the university president and a trustee. The university has since resurrected a steering committee to establish who has final authority over Journal content.

In the Sept. 5 edition, a story headlined “Playing hard to get” reported on the university’s policy of making condoms only available through the campus Wellness Center. The story included a photo illustration of a banana with a condom stretched over it. An accompanying staff editorial questioned the policy and suggested that administrators might be trying to push a conservative pro-abstinence agenda on students.

University President Steven D. Bennion and board of trustees member Dane Leavitt both sent letters to the paper’s adviser, calling the story and photo unbalanced and offensive. Leavitt also was critical of the adviser, Paul Husselbee.

“In analyzing your managing director performance in this instance,” Leavitt wrote to Husselbee, “I am left to assume you were either absent, recklessly negligent or guilty of very poor judgment.”

Husselbee said the conflict began over the single story and photo, but has been compounded by Bennion’s assertion that the university has “a responsibility to monitor the paper” and its entire content.

“The newspaper is part of a larger organization representing the university, like it or not,” Bennion said to a group of students.

Leavitt has claimed the university’s right to control the publication is based on the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, which limited the First Amendment rights of high school students. The courts have consistently rejected university efforts to apply Hazelwood to college-level cases, although such a case is now pending before a federal appeals court in Illinois.

In a meeting with about 50 students on Sept. 26, Bennion expressed a concern that the controversial article could scare away potential university donors.

Husselbee said he understands the university’s worries about fundraising.

“[Administrators] fear that members of the conservative religious majority will refuse to donate,” he said.

The matter is currently before the University Journal Steering Council, a body that Husselbee said many in the communications department thought had become obsolete. The council, which consists of 20 students, faculty and administrators, has been reconvened to rewrite its bylaws and establish whether final authority over Journal content rests with student editors or administrators.

The prior committee bylaws state that the editor of the paper should be a faculty member assigned by the university president and that the council should meet once a month. The editor position, however, is currently filled by a student and has been since 1998. According to Husselbee, the steering council has not met since 1996.

The revised bylaws will be subject to approval from the faculty senate, university deans, the president and the board of trustees. The bylaws might be resubmitted within the month, said Husselbee.

University Journal editor Tasha Williams said that newspaper staff and other students are willing to fight, even in court, to keep administrators from establishing control over the student newspaper.

Much of the newspaper’s support has come by way of the Student Association for Free Expression, or SAFE, which was formed after the controversy arose.

“We believe the student newspaper should be run by students,” said Mark Justice, a senior political science major and founder of SAFE.

The group is trying to inform the student body of 6,095 about the University Journal‘s plight, he said. Leavitt spoke and took questions at a recent SAFE meeting in front of more than 100 students. Justice said this student support was “remarkable” for the “traditionally conservative” campus.

To date, university administrators have not requested to review the paper prior to publication.

For the moment, Husselbee remains steadfast. He said administrators’ belief that they have a legal right to content control is not out of the ordinary.

“Administrators think that the law doesn’t apply to them,” he said.